Monday, November 12, 2018

Getting Radicle

Watermelon radishes pulled the day before the low hit 10 degrees.

Not exactly at the top of the list of everyone's favorite vegetables.

But don't we all grow them anyway?
They're one of the first vegetables we can plant in the spring, and one of the last we can plant in the fall. They grow quickly and readily -- practically foolproof -- making them a great thing for a kid's garden or any first time gardener.

You can slice them into salads, use slices of large ones to dip out guacamole, carve them into roses as cute little garnishes, and... uh... and... Well you can eat them raw as a spicy snack.

Oh. come on. Can't you come up with anything else?

Radishes provide numerous nutrients -- vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants. And they help support the body's detoxification system, so eating radishes can help clear out the toxins you've built up from all of the not-so-good-for-you stuff you've been eating. They are especially good at removing bilirubin from the blood, which is the stuff that builds up when you get jaundice. So I'm presuming they're helpful in keeping your liver healthy.

Like you, I always grow radishes... for salads. I'm not so much into carving radish garnishes. However, in Oaxaca, Mexico, Dec. 23 is Noche de Rabanos -- Night of Radishes, when everyone gets into the act of carving great displays out of radishes. This began more than 120 years ago, when merchants carved radishes as part of their magnificent vegetable displays to attract shoppers on their way home from Christmas services. Now it's tradition.

But carving isn't the only thing you can do with radishes. Why not roast them?
Because you never thought of that... right?

Well I didn't either until recently when someone mentioned roasting radishes, or I read about it somewhere online. Anyway, I tried it and love roasted radishes. It's so easy, too. Just slice, or halve, or quarter the radishes (depending on their size), toss them with a high quality oil -- I recommend avocado oil or good quality extra virgin olive oil. Lay them out in a single layer on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet, sprinkle on salt and pepper (you can sprinkle on other seasonings if you like), and roast at 400 degrees for about a half hour, or a few minutes more, turning or stirring halfway through. They're great warm or cold. Make a big batch and heat them up in the toaster oven.

I'll be roasting most of my radishes from now on. Now I am glad that I had such a bumper crop of radishes this fall.

Radishes can be found in many colors and shapes -- red, pink, purple, white, multi-colored, small round, big round, long ones and really long ones. Spring radishes tend to be smaller and mature more quickly. Winter radishes tend to be larger and take just a little longer to mature, although you can harvest them at a "baby" size.

On the left you can see why they're called "Watermelon" radishes, also "Red
Meat" radishes; because of the pink-red centers, the white exterior rings and
green skin. On the right are Cherry Belles, maybe some Crimson Giants.
These are about to be roasted!
I usually grow Cherry Belle, a spring radish, in both spring and fall. Supposedly that's the variety you're most likely to find in the grocery, but mine always carry so much more heat than those I've bought at the store. But roasting -- or cooking them some other way, such as in a stir-fry -- dampens the heat. I also grow Watermelon radishes (a winter radish). They don't reach the size of watermelons, but they do get pretty big. Some sources say that they can reach the sized of a softball -- never seen one that big, but I've seen some slices from some pretty big ones on restaurant plates. I don't think any of mine have quite hit the tennis ball size, but they've gotten much bigger than ping pong balls. I should thin them more diligently. A bit wider spacing would get me bigger radishes.

I also grow daikons -- great big, long, white radishes that you plant in the fall. One year I tried a spring planting and they just kept bolting instead of enlarging their roots.

The green leaves of radishes are edible, as well. I've never been that fond of radish greens, or maybe it's just that I have so many other types of greens available when the radish greens are large and lush, so I've never bothered with them much. But today a sauteed some green onions in ghee (clarified butter), added the chopped radish greens, along with some turnip greens and radicchio, then sprinkled on salt and pepper. When the greens were cooked I added lime juice. Now I wish I'd saved more radish and turnip greens. Maybe the daikons will come through this bitter cold to provide more fresh greens.

Radishes do best in moderately rich soil, with sufficient moisture, and cool weather.

The word "radish" comes from the Latin "radix," meaning "root." So radish is just another word for root. Go figure. Radishes are a prime example of a tap root. Another word derived from radix is "radicle" (no, I didn't misspell "radical" in the title), the first tiny root that emerges from a seed.

This is a great time of year to pick up lots of roots, from radishes to rutabagas, turnips and sweet potatoes, parsnips and carrots, even celeriac, burdock, etc. It's a good time of year to get to the root of things.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Rutabaga Moon

This is the top of one of the rutabagas that I pulled last week before the deep freeze.

You see what you see.
I have no apology.

It takes some cheek
To show that kind of freak,

And make bun puns.

(Slinking away...)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Snow Show

I walked out my bedroom door yesterday morning, ready or not to greet the day.

"Wow." I said, finding no other words. "Wow."

Snow had started falling the previous afternoon, picking up its pace as the evening darkened. I knew I would find snow on the ground, but did not anticipate the view that greeted me.

The snow was a wet one. It billowed on the ground where low-growing plants had not yet died back, and clung to tree branches, starkly white against the deep green of the red cedars. It piled on the horizontal wires of fences, and weighted down the white row covers on the low tunnels so they sagged like horses who had borne too many riders,

According to my husband, the sun broke through the clouds the very moment I opened the bedroom door, as if the universe had been waiting to gift me with this view. Almost as if it wanted to make up for the fact that the temperature on our hilltop would drop to a mere 10 degrees Fahrenheit that night.

I forgave the universe (the forecast being for "just" 15 degrees that night) and almost immediately grabbed my camera. I headed outside, with my feet still bare (I didn't go far), to snap some shots before the snow disappeared.

As predicted, the wind arrived shortly after that and I watched snow-laden branches of the cedars begin moving like waves on the sea. I was mesmerized and momentarily considered taking a video. But photos and videos never capture the true magic in a moment, only memories can. So I stayed in my chair and watched. Then the wind rose higher and began shaking snow from the branches. Today, hardly a flake of snow is left.

I will wait a few days before checking to see if all the blankets, hay and other coverings saved the cabbages and kale and lettuce from death by freezing. We harvested some stuff during the days before the deep freeze, lettuce, rutabaga greens, bok choy, radishes and kale -- just in case. I opened one little tunnel with the intent of just letting most of it go -- but the turnips were so beautiful that I pulled them all, salvaging a couple dozen or more baby turnips the size of my thumb or larger. I saved a few of the turnip greens, too. I'm not that fond of turnips, either root or green, but I like them well enough to eat a few, for the diversity. And when something is that beautiful I can't just let it go.

So, did three days effort (when I wasn't feeling well mind you) save my cabbages and rutabagas, or was it all in vain? Regardless, it was worth the effort. At least I tried. I made the effort. I've done other things in my life that did not come to fruit, but I'm satisfied in that I made an attempt. And so, after I'd spent time laying blankets and scattering fluffy piles of hay, it did not matter so much what the aftermath will look like. I felt better both mentally and physically having done the work. That is enough.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Last Whiff of Summer

Summer is definitely over.

Nothing blooms in the prairie or the garden, except a few straggling asters, such as the pale lavender ones above (trust me, in the prairie they're pale lavender), surprising atop browned stalks among browned prairie grasses, as well as a few white asters. The last whiff of summer. They might be natives or introduced varieties, I can't tell them apart. So many aster species exist, and often the only way to distinguish them is by a few subtle differences.

In the flower bed an aster is the last to maintain a few sparse blooms. Maybe it's aromatic aster? But the online pics don't look quite right. I might have mis-remembered it's name.

The summer vegetables are gone. The peppers have been roasted and frozen, and the plants quietly decompose in the compost heap

The last crisp, brown corpses of tomato plants have been removed. In their place tidy beds rest, covered in either hay mulch or short green oats and clover. I love the tidiness of season's end almost as much as the rampant growth of high summer.

Cabbages, lettuce, and other cool-love vegetables do their thing under white-draped low tunnels.

We had a couple of nights of freezing weather in the middle of October, followed by the most wonderful Autumn weather. Even the dark, rainy days were glorious. I've been able to work outdoors with just a light jacket, even in my shirt sleeves.
Goldenrod seed head in the prairie.

But that has changed. I'll need a coat today, and shoes. Freezing is in the forecast again. A bit deeper this time. Today I'll start adding layers to the fall-winter vegetable garden, pulling back row covers, harvesting some, then spreading row cover over the top of the plants, and closing the tunnel again. I hope this gives enough extra protection to keep things from getting burned.

Most of the tunnels are covered with a bit heavier row cover that they call a "frost blanket." It holds just a couple of degrees of extra warmth, which is all that is needed at this point. I will go through and determine which beds are covered with the lighter version and decide whether I need to replace it with frost blanket. In a couple of weeks I'll have to decide whether to add more layers of protection, or just harvest everything and give it up to the season.

But that will be then. Today I'll focus on what I know needs to be done and watch the season deepen. My mind and body follow the season, settling deeper into a resting state. I sleep a bit later. Feel sleepy earlier in the evening. I lack creative energy. That's fine, I tell myself. This is a period of restoration and gestation. Those creative seeds I've planted will spend their time evolving in my subconscious, and when the time is right, they'll send down roots and poke up shoots. Like the seeds in the ground, I must give them time.

Let winter do its job.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Covering Your Assets

Oats and crimson clover sprouting in a cleared area of the garden.
Whether spring, summer or fall, I find something satisfying about clearing plants from the garden. I love the way the garden takes on a more spacious, tidy look after sprawling and declining plants are gone.

But that doesn't last long. In spring and summer I'm likely to plant another veggie crop there, or I will plant a cover crop. At the very least, I will cover the soil with old hay.

Without a doubt, soil is your biggest asset in the garden, and keeping the soil covered is one step in building and maintaining healthy soil, alongside adding compost or other forms of organic matter, avoiding walking on and compacting the soil, minimizing tillage or other disturbance (including cutting off annual plants with extensive roots systems at soil level instead of pulling them), and maximizing the diversity of crops in the garden (including rotating crops, companion planting, and cover cropping).

Buckwheat seedlings cover the bare spaces between the celery and parsnips. 
Buckwheat makes potassium in the soil available to other plants.
Maintaining living roots in the soil is possibly one of the most key ways to create healthy soil (which is much more than just dirt), according to the Extension horticulture agent who gave a presentation on cover crops at last month's Master Gardeners' meeting. Those roots give beneficial microorganisms (mainly bacteria and fungi) someplace to live.  Without those organisms plants will not thrive, as the microorganisms in the soil assist the plant in taking up nutrients. You can maintain living roots in the soil three ways:

   --By planting perennials; which only works if you don't plan to use the area for annual crops for a while;
   --By intensifying crop rotation. This means that as soon as you take out one crop, plant another, preferably from a different plant family, but not necessarily. I usually plant my fall brassicas (cabbages etc.) in the same places I planted the spring brassicas. Then I give that area a rest from brassicas for the next two years.
   --By planting cover crops, which are the focus of this post.

Besides maintaining living roots in the soil, cover crops also help smother weeds, add organic matter to the soil, prevent erosion and oxidation of the soil (thus, keeping nutrients in place), and in some cases, make nutrients more accessible to other plants.

Examples of the last benefit include legumes "fixing" nitrogen in the soil through a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria; deep rooted plants pulling nutrients from deeper soil levels, making them available to other plants when their upper portions die; and modifying other nutrients to forms other plants can use. Nutrients might be in the soil in sufficient quantity, but in forms your garden plants cannot use. Some cover crops take care of this.

Key aspects to planting cover crops: choose the one right for the season, warm-season covers for late spring and summer, and cool season covers for late summer through winter. Decide whether you want a high biomass crop (which gives you lots of green growth that breaks down slowly), or a low biomass crop (which is not as bulky and decomposes rapidly). Plant high biomass covers in late summer and fall where you will plant late spring and summer crops, as you will have plenty of time to "terminate" them and watch them decompose before planting. Low biomass covers are good as winter cover where you will plant early spring crops (like peas and brassicas) or in spring and summer where you will plant again within a couple of months or so, as they will break down quickly upon termination.

Perennial cover crops are beneficial in areas that you intend to let fallow for a few years (some are short-lived perennials), and around large perennials, such as fruit and nut trees and berry bushes. I am rethinking my practice of keeping the area around my berry bushes and brambles clear. But not all perennial plants are good for this purpose and some may be detrimental. Do your research.

Cover crops also can break the cycle of some plant diseases and pests. For example, marigolds help manage crop damaging nematodes; grassy covers also break the cycle of certain diseases. Cover crops also can help break up compacted soil. Tillage radishes (the long-rooted daikon) and turnips are particularly good at this. Some cover crops also provide food or habitat for beneficial insects.

Crimson clover in bloom in late spring.
I can't cover everything about cover crops here, just the three I currently use. But I offer a couple of links to good resources on cover cropping. Most cover crop resources focus on large scale agriculture, but that info can easily be adapted to gardens. You can buy a hard copy or download for free "Growing Over Cover." I have not yet read through this, but it is published by the Kansas Rural Center -- an awesome program -- so I trust that it contains great info. This cover crop periodic table also has great, easy to access info, plus additional slides that describe individual cover crops. And here you can either buy hard copy or download free Building Soils for Better Crops by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. This covers much more than cover crops, and again focuses more on large scale production. But healthy soil info can be translated to even the smallest garden plot, containers even. I have not read through this one either (but I've got it downloaded), but I see it referenced a lot when I'm doing research.

OK. The cover crops I use are oats, buckwheat and crimson clover.
-- Crimson clover is a legume, which fixes nitrogen. It does this by taking nitrogen from the air (where it is quite abundant but not usable by plants) and through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria converts it to a form that plants can use. When the plant dies (or you terminate it), nitrogen is returned to the soil. This is a high biomass, cool-season plant. It is my go-to for winter cover and early spring cover. It survives my winter when well established, so it grows again in spring and keeps the weeds at a minimum while fixing nitrogen. It's crimson flowers provide nourishment for bees and other pollinators. However, it's usually recommended that you not let cover crops set seed or they will reseed and become weeds themselves. I have not considered this a major issue, and because I don't always get around to things in the most timely manner, my crimson clover covers usually flower. They're beautiful.

--Oats is a grassy cover. Seed is cheap. It grows quickly and can be used throughout the season, even as a winter cover. While it winter kills when the temperature hits the high teens, it remains in place, providing cover and roots to keep the soil intact. I usually interplant it with crimson clover or buckwheat. Since it is a high biomass plant, I interplanted it sparingly with the buckwheat. You also can consider a patch of oats as homegrown hay mulch. If you let it set seed, you can harvest the grain at the "milky" stage for a great herbal medicine for soothing nerves.

Arugula self-sowed to become a cover crop in a bed where the beets and
carrots did not take.
--Buckwheat. No, it's not related to wheat at all. It's not even a grass. Buckwheat is related to rhubarb, dock and other members of the polygonium family. This warm-season cover can be planted mid-spring through early autumn. I've planted it in March and gotten very little germination, but planted in April and it grows thickly. Until the Master Gardeners' lesson on cover crops I didn't give buckwheat a second thought as winter cover. It is killed by temperatures in the mid- to upper-20s. However, because it is low biomass, it is great for planting where I will put my early spring vegetables. Buckwheat takes up potassium from the soil and converts it to a form other plants can use. It grows rapidly, so when planted about a month or so before your expected first frost, it makes a nice stand. It was the first of the three covers to sprout this fall. Bees adore buckwheat flowers and make a rich, dark honey, that works great in suppressing coughs from the nectar. A large patch of flowering buckwheat nearly roars with the industry of bees.

--Other plants not usually called cover crops can be useful here, as well, even some weeds, such as henbit. (Why weed it out then? Just let it serve you.) Definitely don't let these weed plants set seed, though. Also some leafy green vegetables and annual herbs can serve as covers, it they sprout thickly enough. Right now I have a cover crop of arugula growing where the spring crop dropped seed. The beets and carrots I planted there did not germinate well (too hot and dry), so I let the arugula take over. Not only will it remain there until some pretty deep cold, I can eat it, too.

When planting cover crops, keep the seed bed moist until significant germination occurs. Then water occasionally until they get well established.

I will say no more. Check out my links for much more information. Just get your assets covered.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


Garlic chives in full bloom produce an arresting site. Shortly before this photo was taken a tall Lady in Red salvia sported tall spikes of scarlet blossoms in front of this clump of garlic chives; scarlet and bright white together made a striking picture -- unfortunately I didn't get around to taking a photo until the red blossoms had dropped.

Garlic chives bloom relatively briefly in late summer -- for about two weeks or so. During that time the clump of garlic chives becomes a popular dining spot for all kinds of nectar-loving creatures. When the blossoms fade, they are replaced by little green capsules, that in time dry and spit out a black seed each. Dozens and dozens of seeds per clump of chives. Dozens and dozens of viable seed ready to turn into more garlic chives. This can be considered a good thing, or an annoyance. It all depends on where the garlic chives grow. These in my "ornamental" flower beds prove to be an annoyance when they start to spread. So before the little white flowers turn to seed I've got to cut off all the flower stalks.

One of the many visitors that dine on nectar of garlic chive blossoms.
However, I intentionally scattered seed around some fruit trees, where they've created a lovely spattering of starry flowers. Some friends of mine who live in the woods have a large patch of garlic chives (which do taste and smell like mild garlic) along the narrow path to their house. It is quite lovely.

These plants are hardy, suffering through heat and drought with no complaints. And -- I don't know if it's proper to use this term in relation to a non-critter -- fecund, with all of these seeds ready to make babies. I did not realize how persistent these gems are until I recently went to my parents' home for a family reunion. Around the southwest corner of the house, where I planted my first herb garden, garlic chives bloomed. Some of them had obviously been taken down with a string trimmer or mower, but numerous small clumps bloomed. I'm sure my mom didn't plant garlic chives, so the only explanation was that they were remainders from the herb garden I planted as a 16-year-old. Decades have passed since then.

As I've lately pondered about the impermanence of life (as I often do when summer moves into autumn, trees lose leaves, etc. etc.) I came up against something that wasn't quite so fleeting. The original garlic chive plant that I set into the ground decades (I mean decades) ago no longer lives, but its progeny do. The herb garden planted when I was a fledgeling herbalist/herb grower still survives in some form.

I wonder, will the offspring of these chive blossoms flower beneath the red cedar trees that overtake this land decades from now?

NOTE: Garlic chives, Allium tuberosum, also called Chinese chives. Distinctly garlic in flavor; leaves are flat rather than round like regular chives. Originated from Asia, particularly northern China. Related to onions, etc. A member of the Liliaceae (Lily) family.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Fleeting Glory

The actual color of these beauties is a deeper purple, but the camera didn't pick it up. Grandpa Ott's morning glories.
Every morning I take my daily cup of tea or coffee onto the screened in porch where I meditate on the landscape before me. These days the sumac at the edge of the woods has taken on a bit of red. In a few weeks all of the sumac foliage will be brilliantly scarlet.

Trees still adorned in green rise behind the sumac; I think I see a bit of color in the green canopy, however. In front of the sumac the black raspberries lean on the trellis and stretch their canes down, hoping to touch tip to ground and take root (something I keep trying to discourage).

Long beans cover a trellis at the front of the vegetable beds on this side of the house. One end of that trellis is studded with rich purple morning glories -- Grandpa Ott's morning glories that have gone feral. They climb the pallets and fencing that enclose my compost area, so their seed winds up in the compost and morning glories spring up everywhere. I weed out some, let some grow, and miss some when I'm weeding leaving glorious weeds.
Is this the Heavenly Blue morning glory? An appropriate name.

While they grow all summer and start blooming about mid-summer, they are at their most glorious in late summer and early autumn. At some point I must have planted morning glories other than Grandpa Ott's because this lovely sky blue glory has covered the wire cage that supposedly supports a purple tomatillo. That's ok, because the tomatillo plant didn't fare so well. At least it's been replaced by something pretty.

A trellis in front of my house boasts a differently colored glory, an incandescent pink. While the blue glories might be descendants of a variety appropriately named "Heavenly Blue," I have no idea of the variety name of the pink, perhaps I'll call it "Stunning Pink."

Shall I call this one "Stunning Pink" morning glory?
Whatever their variety names, morning glories (genus name Ipomoea) belong to the Convolvulacea family. A black sheep of that family is the nefarious field bindweed, as well as the hedge bindweed, two small vines with pretty trumpet flowers (just smaller versions of morning glory flowers). Unlike morning glories, the bindweeds are perennial and extremely difficult to eradicate -- one reason they are designated a noxious weed.

A sweet potato blossom.
Morning glories also are close relations of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), which produce a much more robust vine. And, yes, the vines that grow from our vegetable sweet potato roots also bloom, although not nearly as profusely as the morning glory vines. The ornamental sweet potato vines are possibly just varieties of this vegetable, but they are not tasty in any way, and I've never seen them flower.

To enjoy the morning glory blossoms I must get into the garden during the first part of the morning. By late morning they are closed and withering (except on cloudy days). Glorious as they are, their time is brief, impermanent.

And so they remind me, that while my "blossoming" is much longer than theirs, it also is impermanent. Everything I labor for on this land is impermanent. Once my hand no longer touches this place, everything will change.

At some point, I presume, human tending of this land will cease and Nature will do what she sees fit. Most likely the area will be covered by woody species -- first the sumac and flowering dogwood, an occasional hedge, elm or redbud, all of which will eventually be engulfed by the red cedars. Beneath it all, sleep the roots of an old prairie that began its days when the glacier retreated. As massive and powerful as that glacier was, shaping the hills and leaving behind gravel and large stones from places far to the north, it also was impermanent. Deeper down, the limestone bedrock tells the tale of an ancient seabed, now permanent in its impermanence. Beneath that, I don't know -- tales a billion years old. None of them permanent, yet the memory of all of these lies embedded in this land.

My tiny little piece of time here will go unnoticed in the sea of time. Like the morning glory blossoms, it will be brief. However, they flowers remind me to do my best to make it glorious.